Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Juan Cole's "Engaging the Muslim World"

Juan Cole, internationally respected historian, celebrated blogger, and Middle East expert, teaches history at the University of Michigan and is the former president of MESA. His blog, Informed Comment, receives 250,000 unique hits every day. He has written numerous books, including Sacred Space and Holy War and Napoleon's Egypt.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Engaging the Muslim World, and reported the following:
P. 99, on "The Wahhabi Myth:"

It is not even clear that most Saudis raised in the Wahhabi tradition adhere to the values preached by their more narrow-minded clergymen. In polling, ordinary Saudis overwhelmingly reject harsh punishments for moral infractions such as adultery. One pollster found that only 62 percent of Saudis even described themselves as "religious," a much lower percentage than Jordanians or Egyptians. Most Wahhabis go through life without killing anyone. Cultural traditions do not commit violence, people do, and they do so for concrete reasons in particular situations.

Wahhabism is a sort of "national church," if you will, of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and Wahhabism has gotten a reputation as a font of terrorism. Politicians keep saying that 15 of the 19 hijackers on September 11 were Saudis, as if that is a meaningful statistic (Bin Laden handpicked al-Qaeda members for the mission to sour relations between Washington and Riyadh). That Saudis funded the Muslim seminaries that produced the Taliban is also marshalled as evidence for a sinister connection to terrorism. But it was the Reagan administration that urged Afghans to mobilize on religious bases to fight a guerrilla war against the Soviets, so was that not the real moment of radicalization? I am arguing above that in opinion polls the Saudi public does not evince support for the severe strictures of Wahhabism, for the stonings, beheadings, and so forth that scandalize the West (and much of the urban Muslim world). Second, there is a difference between being puritanical and being a terrorist. Terrorism is the deployment of violence against civilians by a non-state actor for the achievement of political goals. There is no evidence that I know of that Wahhabis are more likely to join terrorist groups or commit terrorism than are Sunni Muslims or Shiite Muslims. In my book, I am arguing for precise thinking about Muslim movements, and for avoiding easy stereotypes and sloppy thinking. Saudi Arabia has more often than not been an ally of the US, and its people want better relations with us; they should not be pushed away by thoughtless slurs.
Read an excerpt from Engaging the Muslim World and visit Juan Cole's website.

--Marshal Zeringue